Monday, January 16, 2017

Parts of Speech: Action Verbs

Our language is built on eight parts of speech. Those parts are the building blocks of every sentence every writer writes. They can be manipulated to express beautiful, romantic, inspiring, imaginative things, and they can be manipulated to express unintelligent or uninteresting things no one cares to read. The order of the building blocks creates variety, voice, and meaning (among other things). They determine where punctuation is to be placed. Knowledge of them elicits proper grammar. I taught English for thirty years, I’ve written five novels, and I edit books as a current “career.” I found it difficult to teach writing in the past, and I’m finding it even more difficult in the present to content and line edit without referencing or teaching the parts of speech. I imagine it would be no different than teaching auto mechanics without teaching the car parts and the tools to manipulate them. This entry is the first of a series of blogs by which I intend to help readers learn some things about our language that will help them become better writers. Because I’m ever-learning, maybe it’ll help me be a better writer and editor as well.

Teaching the parts of speech has one difficult obstacle that I’ve never figured out how to completely overcome. It’s extremely difficult to start with one and simply move along. They overlap. They work together. It’s hard to talk about one without ever mentioning others. They aren’t simply building blocks that one can build upon the other. However, experience has taught me that the best, most logical place to begin is with verbs. If one part of speech can be more important than another, then I vote for verbs. There are three kinds of verbs: action, helping, and linking. Today, I’m going to focus on action verbs. They’re easiest, and the writing tips that apply are especially important.

Action verbs show…well, action. Physical action is obvious, but action verbs include mental action—action of the mind (words like consider, wonder, believe, and hypothesize). Verbs tell what is being done. Some action verbs are transitive, leading to something that receives the action (Donald Trump said something stupid) and some are intransitive with nothing receiving the action (Hillary Clinton lied again). “Something” is the direct object of “said.” You could ask the question “Said what?” and the answer would be “something stupid.” “Lied” doesn’t have a direct object. You could ask “Lied what?” and there is no answer because lied is intransitive. This same thing can apply to mental action. I considered jogging. “Considered” is a transitive action verb with “jogging” as the direct object. I deliberated for less than ten seconds (because I don’t jog). “Deliberated” is an intransitive verb because there is no answer to “deliberated what?” That’s pretty much all you need to know about action verbs, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is action spurs imagination. Our minds can visualize action. It can be pleasant looking at a picture, but watching a video is more likely to get our blood pumping. Writers need to use action verbs to create action-packed possibilities in our readers’ minds. All writers have heard the saying “Show; don’t tell.” Well, action verbs show. Instead of saying, “You’re brilliant,” he said sarcastically, you can say, Mike rolled his eyes. “You’re brilliant.” He shook his head as he walked away. The reader saw a scene of action and figured out that the speaker was being sarcastic.

How about this: The tips of Mike’s fingers met above the bridge of his nose. His thumbs hooked under his jaw, hiding his nose and mouth from my view, but I could see his wide eyes and his knee as it bounced frantically. That’s an action-packed description of Mike: met, hooked, could see, bounced. Or I could say this: Mike seemed scared. He was covering his face with his hands and his knee was bouncing uncontrollably. There are no action verbs in the second set of sentences. The verbs are seemed, was, and was. The first set is active while the second set is passive. Active is better.

And some verbs are better than others. “Thought” isn’t as specific as “planned.” “Walked” is far less specific than “hobbled.” Why say “ate greedily” when you can say “devoured”? Why say “read and remembered” when you can say “absorbed”? Something can break or it can chip, crack, shatter, or splinter. Words have specific meanings which paint specific pictures. (Let me interrupt and say that a thesaurus is a wonderful thing). What I’m obviously pointing out is that great action verbs can paint specific pictures, often saving the writer words.

But that leads me to mention something that is just the opposite. I’ve noticed many knowledgeable authors comment about dialogue tags. I’m going to throw in that many people don’t punctuate dialogue correctly (that will mostly be dealt with in another blog), but then I’m going to mention that many authors say the words “said” and "asked" are practically the only dialogue tags a writer needs. No author is going to write an entire novel without using a synonym for said at least occasionally, but what many successful authors are saying is to throw away the thesaurus for dialogue tags. All those wonderful synonyms aren’t needed--some are actually awkward and detract from the writing. So here is where everything I said above is thrown out the window for dialogue tags. Don’t use more specific words or add words to tell how the speaker is speaking. Again, you need to show instead of tell, especially when the telling adds –ly words (adverbs).

“Come here,” Lexi purred seductively should be more like “Come here,” Lexi said. She beckoned with her finger, lust in her eyes.

“Put your hands in the air,” Duke growled menacingly should be more like “Put your hands in the air,” said Duke. He glared over the shot gun, his teeth clenched in anger. Less synonyms and adverbs; more specific description.

And while I’m on dialogue, a dialogue tag is used to express words for said. Smiled, for instance, is not a way of speaking. “You look beautiful,” he smiled isn’t punctuated correctly. The comma rule says to put a comma to set off the dialogue tag, but “smiled” isn’t a way of speaking, so it doesn’t fit the rule. It should be “You look beautiful.” He smiled. Or, better, put “He smiled” first. 

So lesson one on the parts of speech is about action verbs. Make your writing action-packed. Use the active rather than the passive voice. Use more specific verbs. But when it comes to dialogue, simplify your dialogue tags and show rather than tell. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Days of Yesteryear for Better or Worse

I spent my childhood in the 60s and 70s. Obviously, life was different then. Was it better? Was it worse? Well, I’m going to be the judge of that because I’m listing fourteen random areas of difference and telling you if I think they were better, worse, or somewhere in between.
1.   Corporal punishment was allowed in school. I got a swat once for teasing a girl in class. The teacher who swatted me in front of my classmates barely caused me physical pain, but it embarrassed me—and my parents found out and punished me because in my day, the teacher was always right. I didn’t want another swat or home punishment, so my behavior changed. BETTER.
2.   We played vinyl records on record players—albums that scratched, skipped, or warped—and taped songs off the radio with portable cassette players. I remember building a “soundproof” fort and waiting for my favorite songs on the radio, hoping to record them without interruption from noise in the house. WORSE.
3.   Research was done with encyclopedias, library source books, or microfilm. Yeah, trolling the library was no fun (and in those days we were expected to be quiet). Topics were generally chosen based on whatever letter of the encyclopedia was available. Loading and spinning through microfilm was far too tedious. There was no internet! WORSE.
4.   We had to get up to change the TV channel or to change the antennae rotator or the volume. We only had one TV, so we also had to fight for our shows or (horror of horrors) find something else to do. Nowadays, I’ll scour the earth for the remote before going to the TV to change the channel or volume. WORSE.
5.   When a thermometer broke, we rolled the liquid-metal mercury around in the palms of our hands. We didn’t die. Now they shut down entire schools. PROBABLY WORSE.
6.   We didn’t wear helmets. I learned how to ride a bike by having my dad steady it until I got it moving myself, and then he’d let go and I’d ride until I fell either in the grass or on the cement sidewalk. We didn’t have in-line skates, skateboards, or many of the other cool rolling gadgets, so bike-riding was essential. We played hockey, rode motorcycles, and rode bikes and roller skates without helmets. I’m only partially brain damaged. BETTER…MAYBE.
7.   We played Jarts. You know…those arrows of death? Actually, we were smart enough to not get in the way of other gamers’ throws, and we let them land without having our skulls pierced. Maybe we had more common sense than people of today, and maybe having the government monitor our safety for us isn’t really all that necessary. Hey, there could be Jart helmets. BETTER.
 8.   We rode in the back of pickup trucks or on the top of the backseat in a  convertible. Does anyone remember sitting in the backseat of a station wagon,  looking out the back window at the other drivers? Do you remember having to  sit on the hump because almost all cars had rear-wheel drive (which was great  for doing donuts in parking lots in the winter)? There were no car seats, only  occasional seat belt usage, and sooner or later, we all “drove” the car while  sitting on our dad’s lap. I survived, believe it or not. BETTER…AND WORSE.
9.    We built our own forts and treehouses. There was a lot of pride in the  achievement, and though they were horribly built, they were ours. We made  the plans, chose and hauled the lumber scraps or branches, brought the tools,  and made something we were proud of. BETTER.
10.  We climbed to the tops of trees, jumped fences, swung on swing sets with legs  coming out of the ground, trespassed in the woods, designed our own bike    jumps, umpired and refereed our own neighborhood ball games, got in fights    and solved our own problems, and left the house in the morning only to come    home when our parents called for us from the front door for dinner (which we  ate as a family). We did all of those things without a cell-phone or a  microwave. BETTER.
11. Visits to church, hospitals, relatives’ homes, stores for shopping, etc. were  made without smartphones and tablets. We were bored…or we creatively found  something to do. Maybe we took a book to read. Maybe we interacted with  people. We probably learned proper etiquette and people skills. BETTER.
12. We attended drive-in movies. People hid in the trunk so they wouldn’t have to  pay. With our parents, we came in pajamas with pillows and blankets, and we  brought our own refreshments and strained to see the screen in the fading  daylight. As teenagers, we strolled around the “theater” or sat in open  hatchbacks with our friends. BETTER…OR NOT.
13. When we needed someone to hang out with, we went to their houses, knocked  on their doors, and asked if they could come out and play. Most of my school  friends in my day lived within six miles of my house, yet their phones were  long-distance to call, and my parents wouldn’t let me call them, so I had to  ride my bike to their houses. WORSE.
14.  We were grounded differently. I was grounded to my house or my room. Or  sometimes I was grounded to my yard. I was never grounded from my cell-  phone, computer, video games, or iPod (or whatever music source). When I  couldn’t leave to play with my friends or have friends over, I was miserable.  These days, parents can’t get kids to leave the house. I DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS  BETTER OR WORSE—JUST DIFFERENT.

And that’s the whole point. Things were different. Times evolve, rules of society change, culture differs, and standards of safety adjust. Things are different now, for better or worse, but for some of you, I’ve stirred your memories of “the good old days.” Do you think they were better or worse?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Death Threats Against University of Michigan Punter

I read recently about the demise of Twitter. The main idea of the article was that Twitter has become a haven of hate. Attacks are made on people simply because they don’t share the same opinion or because the attacker is simply an indecent human being. This past Saturday afternoon, I witnessed one of the best football games I’ve ever watched. My favorite team (the University of Michigan) looked to have a victory sewn up against our cross-town rival (Michigan State University) when a miracle occurred in the last ten seconds, handing U of M a heartbreaking defeat. Michigan’s punter dropped the snap, and in a panic to attempt to get a kick off, deposited the ball into the hands of an MSU player, who ran it in for a touchdown as the clock expired. Since then, the Twitter idiots and commenters on other forums have gone so far as to wish death upon the punter. What has our world come to?

I used to coach basketball, and one of the most important things I taught my players—preaching the concept to the extreme—was that we don’t make excuses. Over the years of coaching well over 500 games, there have been many times that the timekeeper or referee made an error at the end of the game. There were other times that one of my players made an error that “cost us the game.” I don’t deny the anger…the frustration…the desire to blame. But blaming the result of a game on one play or one call or one mistake is just plain stupid. Let me explain by giving one example from my coaching history.

I was coaching a team that was winless the year before. It was the first game of the year, and it was against one of the best teams in the conference. At the end of the game, with just two seconds remaining, we had a one-point lead and one of my players was fouled and was to shoot two free throws. I called a time out, and I told the four non-shooting players to stand at half court, so there was no way they could foul. I told my shooter (Al) that once he made the free throws (positive thinking), to back off. They’d have to make a miracle shot just to tie. But I also reminded him that if he happened to miss, they’d have to throw in a full-court shot to win it. The worst thing he could do would be to foul and give them free throws. So what did he do? He missed both free throws, and after the second miss, he fouled the other team’s best player, who made both of his free throws. We lost the game. It was Al’s fault, right? He missed shots that could have sealed the victory. He made a dumb foul. I should blame Al, right? Wrong.

Let me say first of all that we lost by just one point. We did not shoot 100% that game. We didn’t get every rebound. We committed fouls to put our opponents into the bonus before that fateful final foul. We blew defensive assignments during the game. We made turnovers. We missed free throws. At one point, we had a lead larger than one. If we had played better, made more shots, made less mistakes, had given up fewer points, Al’s free throws and foul wouldn’t have mattered. And while I’m mentioning Al, he had a really good game that day. He scored an unexpected nine points and had several steals and forced several other turnovers. We wouldn’t have been in a position to win without him. It wasn’t his fault we lost.

And it wasn’t Blake O’Neill’s fault Michigan lost. MSU had more total yards by a lot. They had a greater time of possession, had more first downs, got called for less penalties, made no turnovers, had a one-play 75-yard score on the play after it seemed Michigan put the game out of reach. Michigan’s running game was stopped. Who blew the defensive assignment on the 75-yard pass? Why did MSU’s quarterback pass for over 300 yards? Why was Michigan’s special teams unit preparing to tackle the punt returner when no returner was back? Why wasn’t the whole team defending MSU’s attempt to block the punt? Wasn’t the snap low? And by the way, wasn’t it Blake O’Neill who had an 80-yard punt? Wasn’t it O’Neill whose punts pinned the Spartans inside the 10-yard line three or four different times during the game? Isn’t O’Neill one of the best punters in the country? Blaming him and threatening him is as absurd as accepting that those giving out threats could actually play better than O’Neill themselves.

Several years ago, a Cubs fan by the name of Steve Bartman did what about 98% of all fans at a baseball game would do. He reached to catch a foul ball (out of the field of play). Video replays even show other fans attempting to do the same thing because, well, that’s what fans do at baseball games. I sure do, and I even caught one once. It made my day. Yet, other Cubs fans seem intent to blame him for the Cubs not winning the World Series. Really? Was that the only play of the game? (If caught, it would have actually only been the second out of the 8th inning). Didn’t the pitcher still have another opportunity to get the batter out who hit the foul ball? (He walked him). How did the other team score eight runs in the inning without other runners? (Shortstop Alex Gonzalez made an error on a sure inning-ending double-play ground ball before other hits and walks began to pile up). Didn’t the Cubs make 27 outs that game? Didn’t they have a chance to win game seven the next day? Are Cubs fans entitled to determine that the Cubs would have won the World Series had Steve Bartman not “interfered” with one batted ball in a playoff game prior to the World Series? Yet Bartman had death threats. One moment in time when he did what anyone would do ruined his life because of idiot “fans.” And by the way “fans,” isn’t it a game? I realize fan is short for fanatic, but seriously, did Steve Bartman’s instinctive action matter so much that he should fear for his life?

It’s a game, people. We watch the game for entertainment…diversion…a reason to get together with friends. Yes, we take pride in our teams. Yes, we get emotional, leading to anger and disappointment, at times. But in the course of a game, we also feel joy. We literally get nervous. We laugh and celebrate with our friends. We might even yell or throw things. But it’s a game. It’s a game in which Michigan fans felt hope and excitement. We celebrated Blake O’Neill’s prior punts. We got angry at instant replay calls that somehow were still inaccurately called, one of which was for a touchdown our team should have never been awarded. We’ve been watching our team play better this year than we expected, and we’re happy for it. But to go on Twitter and wish the death of a kid who dropped a snap is way overboard. To threaten his life should be punishable by law, and the idiots who could never do what Blake O’Neill is capable of doing should be fined or thrown in jail. He’s a kid playing a sport for our entertainment.

And by the way, you parents out there who berate your own children for not playing up to your absurd expectations…you need to back off. Your view of your own past athletic prowess is probably skewed, and your desire to live vicariously through your child’s feats should probably take a backseat to your love and devotion for your son or daughter. It’s a sport—a recreation. It’s a way for your son and daughter to make good friends, have good experiences, learn how to work hard, learn how to work together, learn how to deal with successes and failures, and learn who they are and what they’re made of. Sports and competition mirror real life in many ways, but one way they don’t mirror life is that they aren’t life and death. The idiots who want Blake O’Neill or Steve Bartman to suffer for their miniscule part in the loss of one game in one season need to back off and put their own life in the proper perspective. And lawmakers ought to be figuring out a way to punish people who threaten the lives of others in a public forum. Maybe that would stop idiots from hurting innocent people. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ohio and West Virginia Roads Are Miserable

I’m from Michigan, and over a recent five day period—because of a trip to Florida and back (via North Carolina)—my wife and I drove through Ohio and West Virginia twice. This trip was on the heels of a trip just two weeks earlier when we helped my daughter move into an apartment in North Carolina to begin an internship at UNC (yes, the sky is Tar Heel blue)—so four times we were on those states’ wretched roads in about sixteen days.

Admittedly, I’m a University of Michigan graduate and fan, so my dislike of Ohio comes naturally, but I’m mature enough to admit that not all of Ohio and not all Ohioans are bad. Cedar Point is an amazing amusement park, and I’ve been to Kings Island as well. I’ve watched baseball games in Riverfront Stadium, Great America Ball Park, and Progressive Field. I attended college in Ohio for a year and a half. I’ve been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Cincinnati Zoo, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have friends who live in the state. It’s not all bad. But as a traveler, this I know: the entire state is under road construction. I mean the whole thing. Not only are the speed limits on the roads typically lower in Ohio and the police force seemingly more determined to give out speeding tickets than any state in the union, but Ohio has a massive toll road and 700 million miles of road construction.

Ohio has only two seasons—winter and road construction. That wasn’t a joke. I was stating a fact plainly named on the internet. Cleveland-based Plastic Safety Systems Inc. is one of the country's largest makers of orange construction barrels (I looked it up on Google), literally putting millions of dollars yearly into Ohio’s economy, while managing to keep their manufactured product almost exclusively on their home soil.  Industrywide (not just in Ohio), as many as 750,000 orange barrels are produced annually (another Google “fact”). Now, I’m certain that I-75 near Cincinnati, for instance, has been undergoing road construction non-stop (except in the winter “season”) for at least 30 years. Over 22 billion orange barrels have been produced in that period of time, and I’m convinced half of them can be found in Ohio since the entire state is currently under road construction. And by the way, can anyone tell me when I-75 at Cincinnati will be fixed? It seems inconceivable that there are construction workers who started working road crew as young adults who have retired, never having seen the section of road heading to that terrifying bridge over the Ohio River ever completed.
That brings me to concrete highway median barriers. More Google research says they are twenty feet long, two feet wide, and two feet eight inches tall—and they weigh approximately 8000 pounds each. Since I’m guessing there are a billion of them in Ohio (264 make up a single mile), that means there are eight thousand billion pounds of cement barricading every driving route in the state. Orange barrels are one thing—they’re designed to not wreck a car that happens to hit them, but an 8000 pound weight doesn’t tip over and fall away when a car hits it, so drivers white-knuckle their way through the entire geography of Ohio in hopes of survival—unless, of course, they are safely and securely stuck in one of a myriad of Ohio traffic jams the road construction causes throughout the state. Yeah, the only thing good about the roads in Ohio is that when driving north or south on I-77, they’re better than the roads of West Virginia.
This isn’t scientific, but I-77 runs through the entire state of West Virginia, so I took out a ruler, measured the legend on my atlas, and followed the route the expressway takes. The road should be less than 120 miles long. It’s 187. Yes, it’s more than 50% longer than the map says it is because it winds through the mountains at angles and grades that no one in their right mind would navigate unless they were determined to leave the road construction in Ohio behind and enter back into human civilization in Virginia (via an interesting tunnel through a mountain). No one would do that drive in the winter would they? There must be thousands of abandoned, destroyed vehicles at the bottom of mountain overlooks in West Virginia if people really do drive that route in the ice and snow. Seriously, I found an overhead, satellite view of the West Virginia Turnpike. It looks like this:
The Saturday Evening Post referred to that 88-mile section of road as "the Turnpike that goes to nowhere." Due to the difficulty and lives lost in its construction, it has also been called "88 miles of miracle.” It includes Charleston, which besides its golden-domed capitol building, doesn’t have much to look at—unless you discover the houses hidden in the mountainsides. Other than that, there seems to be no cities, no exits, and no signs of humanity along the turnpike except for in two places. Number one is the “service plazas” which are basically rest stops but are really refuges for the anxiety-riddled people who have braved the worst travel route in the United States. People exit their vehicles, kiss the pavement, throw-up in the rest rooms, eat long meals, and then take a Prozac before buckling up for the next section of road maze. Every bridge is called a “memorial” bridge named after a person I’ve never heard of, but most likely, he or she flew off a cliff in a Prozac-induced sleep. There are signs everywhere that say “Falling Rocks.” That –ing word is in the present perfect progressive tense, describing an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. In other words, while drivers are grasping the steering wheel in a death grip, maneuvering through roads that go every direction except flat and straight, they are to look to the mountain walls out of their peripheral vision for rocks hurtling through the air in hopes of avoiding the pulverization of their vehicles.
The only other place for humanity is at the toll booths. Now, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I believe there are sane people who drive to and from home to set up shop in those toll booths on a daily basis. Either they’re insane or they are violent criminals on work release who inevitably will crash to their deaths before their prisons terms expire. The only other option is that they rock climb to work to begin their shifts and rappel home when they’re finished. The way the roads wind, I think all three toll stops are actually within a “falling rock” from each other and the whole turnpike is simply a legislative joke to raise money and convince non-West Virginian natives to never consider living in the state. The toll booth workers rappel home to their houses built into clefts in the wall or to spelunker into caves below the surface of the planet. In the meantime, white-knuckled drivers are motoring in weaving, winding circles for 88 miles only to come out five miles ahead of where they started. They could have hiked it faster and more safely.

On our last trip through on Monday, my brakes were grinding and my air conditioner stopped working. I had to turn the radio off because the only sound I could pick up was static. I had to turn my phone to airplane mode because the battery was draining while roaming for a signal that most assuredly didn’t exist. I’m certain no phone company is willing to risk employees’ lives to install cell phone towers in the middle of virgin earth, so the only thing we could do while driving through the state was sweat and pray. Well, we made it through four times in sixteen days, and for the time being, I love the state of Michigan to degrees I’d never experienced in the past. Maybe the next time we go to Florida, we’ll fly.  

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Top Ten Things Everyone Can Do--Except Me

Everywhere we look, there are “Top 10” lists, so I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon yet try to come up with something that’s unique. So, while I often make lists on my blog, I’ve yet to have a scientifically provable “Top 10.” Here’s my first effort—the top 10 things that apparently are easy for everyone but me (told you it was scientific).

1.    North, south, east, west directions. I’m in a building and someone says that the help desk is in the southwest corner or a car in the east parking lot has its lights on. Uh, I’m inside. I can’t see the sun. I don’t have a magnetized needle or moss on a tree to help me. How am I supposed to know where the northeast exit is? Yet, you could blindfold my wife, lead her inside a building, spin her around until she’s dizzy, and ask which way’s north, and she’d know.
2.    Touch my toes with my legs straight. My son once took the Presidential Fitness Test. I don’t know…it seemed like there were about a hundred things to do, all of which he exceeded easily. But he had to stretch beyond his toes, and he couldn’t, so that disqualified him from the award (because stretching like a gymnast is the end-all to physical fitness). Well, he comes across it honestly. His dad can barely stretch beyond his knees. And apparently, a person’s tight hamstrings are responsible for every back, knee, groin, and foot pain, so because I can’t reach my ankles, I’m destined to inhale ibuprofen like they’re M & M’s .
3.    Change a door knob. Don’t you dare laugh. This is what happens to me. First, I can’t remove the old one without a hacksaw. Second, the first time through takes twenty minutes to line up the holes, hold the pieces without spinning or falling, lose a screw or two, dent or scratch something, and re-adjust everything. Third, the latch is always going to be in the wrong direction when I finish, so I have to start over. There are two indisputable truths to my home fix-ups. One, I will never ever get it right the first time, or two, I will break whatever I’m “fixing”—door knobs included.
4.    Cook chicken so it’s not too dry to swallow. Colonel Sanders can hire anyone in the universe to make his chicken juicy and edible. Ya Ya’s, Chick-fil-A, Church’s, Popeye’s, and every sit-down restaurant in the world can make moist chicken. Every grandmother in the history of mankind can do it. Heck, Medieval wanderers always have juice running down their chins as they eat their poultry, cooked over an open fire while skewered on a stick, but I could boil my chicken in broth, and when I eat it, it’s dry as sawdust.
5.    Remember jokes. I can remember details from games I played in from junior high. I can remember baseball statistics, names, and records over a century old. But if you tell me a joke, it flies out of my head forever. I can’t seem to quote a single funny joke or tell it right if I try. That part of my head that seems to get speared by a nail every time I venture into my garage attic must be the part that remembers jokes.
6.    Wind a rope or hose or Christmas lights. First of all, I’m nearly phobic of all string-like objects because experience has told me that they’re unquestionably alive. No matter if I manage to wind them perfectly, they’ll be in knot that only Maniac McGee could untie when I go to use it again. So I’m just as sure that those objects fight me when I try to wind them carefully. Right…simply wrap it around my thumb and elbow…turning the object into a twisted pile of unrecognizable crap that’ll be impossible to untangle when it wiggles into a permanent mega-knot while in its safe storage place.
   It would "imply" that strings are alive, which they clearly are.
7.    Use a pipe wrench. My father-in-law blessed me with pipe wrenches for a Christmas present early in my marriage. I can say without hesitation that not one time I’ve attempted to use them have they worked. Well, they’ve scratched up and scarred everything I’ve tried to tighten or loosen, but they’ve never tightened or loosened one single thing. The guy who invented them couldn’t have been thinking correctly when he made those sharp teeth that sit at an angle instead of being flat to fit all the bolts and pipes that they’re meant to turn. And that little knob to tighten the wrench—with my fingers—has yet to tighten it beyond the point of slipping off and scratching anything it touches.
8.   Tread water. Right, I’ll just lean back and lightly wave my arms and lightly kick my feet and I’ll float the day away. For me, it’s more like flailing my arms like I’m trying to fly instead of float and kicking my feet like I’m trying to rid them of spider webs by the force of my panicked motion. What I’m much better at is sinking and drowning than I am at floating. I can tread water for exactly fourteen point three seconds before I’m so tired I start fearing for my life. I couldn’t tread water in the Dead Sea…with an inflatable tube around my stomach. I’m of the opinion if I was supposed to float at the top of the water, my body should be duck-shaped and my arms and feet should be propellers.
9.    Spell rendezvous…or lingerie, hors d'oeuvres, khakis, diarrhea, fuchsia, hemorrhage, lieutenant, or zucchini. Okay, hardly anyone can spell them, but it bugs me that I can’t either, and my spell checker doesn’t even know what I wrote. You know those times when it gives you a different word choice not even in the same ballpark, or it says “no suggestions”? I’m an English major, for crying out loud. I ought to be close enough to get a suggestion.
10. Understand the guy (or gal) who talks at the end of every radio advertisement. Oh, you know what I’m talking about. The guy who talks so fast that in ten seconds he says more than the rest of the commercial said in fifty. The guy who doesn’t ever breathe and says words at such an alarming rate I vow to never purchase anything from the company for fear the fine print he’s spewing at the speed of neurons might rob me of my entire net worth. I feel stupid I can’t hear fast enough to keep up with what he’s saying, and I’ll never purchase anything with fine print so fast it breaks the sound barrier. You can understand him though, right?

As I wrote this, I came to realize I’m pretty pathetic. The list could have gone well beyond ten. What are things you can’t do that seemingly are easy for everyone else?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Should Indie Authors Give Their e-Books Away?

I admit to coming into this blog with my mind made up, but to be fair, I did some research and read some articles. There are people who believe that giving e-books away is a good thing and some who don’t, so I’m going to present both arguments in brief form.

There are some good reasons to have free e-book giveaways. First, in theory, it’s a way to get more reviews. When people read the freebie, some will review it. Second, it’s a way to develop deeper customer relationships by directing readers to newsletters, webpages, or author pages for interaction. Third, it could motivate the e-book reader to actually purchase a printed version if they genuinely enjoyed the e-book. Fourth, in theory, it could motivate readers to purchase additional books by the same author, especially if the free book is part of a series. Fifth, of all the gazillion titles available on Amazon, the vast majority aren’t free, so free books could possibly zoom up the charts and get exposure that an author could never get for purchased books. After the free days, and the book is re-priced for purchase, sometimes there are residual sales, so that is when royalties would be made. And sixth, it gives unknown authors an opportunity to get their books into the hands of people who otherwise have never heard of them and wouldn’t be willing to risk money to give the author a chance.

So what are the reasons given to not have free e-books giveaways? The first reason is that the market place has become oversaturated with daily free e-books. Books are no longer zooming up lists and having the residual effects that they once were having. Secondly, because consumers are seeing so many free titles available, over time, they are beginning to devalue the worth of books. Free books are so abundant, that readers are less and less willing to spend money. Thirdly, the free book giveaways, especially in the flooded market, are not doing what they are supposed to do—get reviews, develop customer relations, and generate sales on printed versions or other works by the author. Fourthly, no other professionals in the book business are expected to work for nothing. Editors, designers, promoters, publishers, bloggers, and advertisers are all making money on an indie author’s books. If the author hadn’t created the book, there would be no need for anyone else, so why is the author the only one who isn’t expected to make money? Fifthly, what other profession do we ask the proprietors to give their work away for free? An author puts in time, sacrifice, worry, and discipline. An author develops and perfects and practices his or her skills and craft. What an author does is worthy of compensation. Finally, people are accumulating so many free books that there is almost no chance that they’re reading them, but even if they do, and they like a specific author’s book, there are so many other free books available, that they’ll wait around for the author’s next giveaway, rather than purchasing the books.
shameless self-promotion
I have to say, as I researched and wrote the pros and cons, my opinion didn’t change. I don’t think authors should do free book giveaways. I’ve given two books away—my first two of five that I’ve published. I gave the second one away first, and it worked—about four full years ago. A couple thousand people downloaded it. Afterward, in the next few months, my sales improved dramatically. I made some money. I didn’t see an increase in the sale of my first book, however, and though I kept waiting for reviews, there were only a couple that may have been from the free downloads. About six months later I tried my first book. The number of downloads was embarrassingly low compared to Skeleton Key. I saw no sales jump in either of my books, and I didn’t get a single review that I felt might have come from the giveaway. It didn’t work at all. So I’ve had both experiences. But I was a newbie. I wanted to get my book in people’s hands, and I had more than one book, so I thought giving one away would help sell the other also. Times have changed in the last four years, however, and now I don’t like the idea at all.

Here are my reasons.

First of all, though I’m sure there are many exceptions and many people will disagree, what I’ve been reading and hearing is that most authors are seeing no significant evidence that giving away their books is getting them additional reviews and the expected increase in sales once the book is no longer free. For other books the author has written, there is little to no increase in the amount of sales either. It used to work better, so why are the numbers low now? I think it’s because the market has been bombarded with free books. People download gobs of them and never read them. Do you know what books they read first? Books they pay for. Those are the ones they’ve invested in. I’ve downloaded a ton of free books. I don’t think I’ve read any of them unless they were from new author friends or were books friends recommended. I have so many paperbacks on my shelves and books on my Kindle that I purchased because I genuinely want to read them that I doubt I’ll ever get to the freebies. That means I won’t buy the author’s next book. I won’t review it. If I ever read it, it might be years from now.

Secondly, there are so many free books on the market that I could go without ever purchasing another book if I so chose. The market is saturated with them. I have an author friend whose writing I love. I’ve read three or four of her books, but I have nine of them on my Kindle. She keeps writing good books, and she keeps giving them away, and I keep downloading them. I’m not cheap. I purchase lots of books, but when I see hers for free, I nab them in case I get a chance to read them someday. I have another author friend who gave away a zillion free books years ago when she first started writing. People were buying them too. It worked. Then her second book came out and she gave it away also. And a lot less people bought that one. After her third book—which she also gave away—she reached the conclusion that her “fans” were just waiting for her to eventually give her new books away. It was like she had to start all over and find a new fan base because she was hardly making any sales.

My third reason is not theoretical or disprovable like my first two. My third reason that books shouldn’t be free is that it devalues the product. I spend hundreds of hours on my books, researching, interviewing, planning, writing, revising, editing, and promoting. I, like most authors, have even invested my own money driving, purchasing swag, and paying editors, bloggers, advertisers, and designers. Why do I spend all that time and money producing a work of art that I’m proud of and everyone but me makes money off it? Editors aren’t editing for free. Designers aren’t designing for free. I think you get the point.

Fourth—a point similar to my third—is that giving away the books devalues the author’s effort. Every other person in the world wants to get paid for their work. I go to craft shows and art shows to sell my books in public quite often. People aren’t walking through the show expecting all the vendors to give them their products. Those vendors spent their valuable time and resources creating the products, but more importantly, they put their talent into the work. Athletes, musicians, and actors get paid for their time and talents. Authors should too. But the more people who give away their books, the less a consumer is willing to pay for others.

I understand the theories that a new author wants to be discovered or authors want to get more reviews or authors believe by giving away one book, people will purchase their others. However, from what I’m gathering, those things used to happen but are no longer a guarantee. People with multiple books are seeing consumers wait around for the next free book. I’m convinced that there are Kindle and Nook download addicts that download book after book without any expectation of reading them, and authors are giving away book after book because a handful of fortunate authors praise the idea of giving them away. Some authors actually pay advertising companies to promote their free book! People with one book are actually giving it away, and there is nothing new for their readers to buy.

Here’s one more thing to consider. Every day I get emails from advertisers like Read Freely, Read Cheaply, Free Booksy, Free Kindle Books and Tips, and The E-Reader Café. Lately, I’m seeing books by some really well-known authors. I saw The Maze Runner recently, for instance. Those books have yet to be free. They’re surrounded by titles by indie authors for free, yet the well-known authors’ books are not. They’re discounted, but not free. Do you think the authors who are making money know something that we don’t? I think they realize that giving away books is no way to be compensated for all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into their work.

If you’re an indie author and you’re thinking of giving away your books, how about giving them away to people who promise to do a review or as gifts in contests for people who follow your author page and interact with you personally? How about giving them to libraries or proofreaders or beta readers or family members or friends who you know will talk you up? If you want to do a special promotion, just discount your book. I know I, for one, am far more likely to read your book if I pay for it. And isn’t that what you want me to do? Read it? As this market of free books continues to explode, it’s beginning to put the rest of us out of business. You and I deserve to make some money on the ten or twenty or fifty hours of entertainment we give our readers. We need to stop letting everyone else make money off our books while we don’t. Remember, without our books, none of those other people could make a cent. Giving it away minimizes what we’ve done, so I’m standing on my soapbox calling out that we need to stop the insanity—or at least slow it to a trickle. I’m of the firm opinion that e-books have monetary value.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baseball Quotes

I happen to love baseball. I played it all the time as a kid, actually hoping someday I’d make the big leagues. I was pretty good, but not that good. I read baseball biographies, collected baseball cards, and learned about the all-time greats. When I first started planning for a career, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball color commentator. I still think I’d be better than a lot of them. Today’s blog is about baseball. Quotes from TV and radio, movies, players, and books will be featured.

I’m starting with a couple of quotes from TV and radio:

“The immortal” Chico Escuela, who was said to have come to the US from the Dominican Republic, was portrayed by Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris in 1978. After John Belushi introduced him, he got up, stood at the podium, and said in a thick Hispanic accent: “Thank you berry much. Baseball been berry, berry good to me.” Who hasn’t heard someone repeat that famous line about baseball?
After 55 years of broadcasting Major League games, including 42 years with the Tigers, Hall of Fame broadcaster, Ernie Harwell, retired and has since passed away. Often referred to as the Voice of Tigers Baseball, Harwell would open each season before the first spring training game by reciting the "Song of the Turtle," a stanza that celebrates the freshness of spring, renewed life and opportunities, and ushers in the baseball season for Tigers fans.

“For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

Anyone who has been a long-time Tigers fan remembers Ernie Harwell fondly for how he helped us love baseball.

Now for some movie quotes:

The upcoming quote ranked #54 in the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema. This is a dialogue from  A League of Their Own.

Jimmy: Evelyn, could you come here for a second? Which team do you play for?
Evelyn: Well, I'm a Peach.
Jimmy: Well, I was just wonderin', 'cause I couldn't figure out why you threw home when we got a two-run lead! You let the tying run get to second, and we lost the lead because of you. You start using your head. That's the lump that's three feet above your ass.
[Evelyn starts to cry]
Jimmy: Are you crying? Are you crying? Are you crying?! There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball!
Because of this movie and Tom Hanks, anyone who’s played the game knows “there’s no crying in baseball.”
Here is a direct quote from the 1993 film, Sandlot. After being asked by Ham Porter if he wanted a s'more, Scotty Smalls replies several times with the question, "Some more what?" After his frustration grew with Scotty, Ham replies with, "You're killing me, Smalls." This phrase is commonly used to express discontent or frustration toward a person, and yes, it came from a baseball movie.

From Field of Dreams, I included two dialogues that I love. One made me laugh and one touched my heart.

The pitcher knocks Archie Graham, the doctor who goes back to his youth to get a second chance to play with professional baseball players—the rookie—twice into the dirt with high, inside fastballs.
Archie Graham: Hey, ump, how 'bout a warning?
Clean-shaven umpire: Sure, kid. Watch out you don't get killed.
Shoeless Joe Jackson (talking to Archie): The first two were high and tight, so where do you think the next one's gonna be?
Archie Graham: Well, either low and away, or in my ear.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: He's not gonna wanna load the bases, so look low and away.
Archie Graham: Right.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: But watch out for in your ear.

The next one is Kevin Costner getting a second chance with his dad. Ray is Kevin Costner.
John Kinsella: Well, good night, Ray.
Ray Kinsella: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Hey... Dad?
[John turns]
Ray Kinsella: [choked up] You wanna have a catch?
John Kinsella: I'd like that.

Here’s another movie quote I hear all the time from Major League. Rookie sensation, Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) was pitching his first game, sans the thick-framed glasses. The stadium was empty and Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) was announcing the radio play-by-play. Sheen uncorked a wild pitch about six feet outside that bounced off the stadium wall behind, and what did Uecker say for his listeners?  “JUST a bit outside.”  

Next are some quotes from Major League Baseball:

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Lou Gehrig said this at Yankee Stadium the day he officially retired from baseball. He was dying of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord—Lou Gehrig’s Disease), yet because of baseball, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Before signing Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey (the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers) made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for an individual who was both a great athlete and a “gentleman”—a person with the inner-strength and self-restraint who could withstand intense hostility and aggression without being reactive. He needed an athlete who wouldn't perceive “not fighting back” as a sign of weakness or lack of courage. In Mickey Mantle’s auto-biography (which I read as a kid) called The Quality of Courage, Mantle explains how not everyone liked Jackie Robinson but he’d never run across anyone who didn’t respect him. Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, so he gets credit for ushering in a huge percentage of my favorite players.
Ernie Banks, nicknamed “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine,” was a Major League Baseball shortstop and first baseman for 19 seasons from 1953 through 1971—thanks partly to Jackie Robinson. He loved the game and his words are often quoted on a beautiful summer day. “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.”

“It’s a round ball and a round bat, and you have to hit it square.” Pete Rose or Ted Williams or Willie Stargell is credited with this quote. I included it because I like it, plus I once heard a humorous description of a square ball and a square bat and a player trying to hit the ball around.
A reporter asked superstar, Joe DiMaggio, "Why did you play so hard?"
"Because there might have been somebody in the stands today who'd never seen me play before, and might never see me again.”
I like how he felt obligated to give his best every day.

Here are a few quotes from well-known authors about baseball:

“[Baseball] is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action.” ― John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

“Baseball is a good thing. Always was, always will be”…. “Baseball is also a game of balance.”― Stephen King, Blockade Billy

“My instinct is a winning coach, and when it said ‘Batter up,’ I didn't argue that I wasn't ready for the game. I gripped the bat in both hands, assumed the stance, and said a prayer to Mickey Mantle.”― Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas

“Baseball isn't just a game. It's the smell of popcorn drifting in the air, the sight of bugs buzzing near the stadium lights, the roughness of the dirt beneath your cleats. It's the anticipation building in your chest as the anthem plays, the adrenaline rush when your bat cracks against the ball, and the surge of blood when the umpire shouts strike after you pitch. It's a team full of guys backing your every move, a bleacher full of people cheering you on. It'” ― Katie McGarry, Dare You To

And finally, from another sports biography that I read as a kid, Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, said, “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Yes, baseball has gripped me my entire life. It’s been “berry berry good to me.” It’s America’s greatest pastime. And Smalls, like “The Song of the Turtle,” it has showed renewed opportunities, broken the color barrier, united father and son, made us laugh and cry, and showed us a slice of life that stays in our vocabularies and gives us images of people proud enough to give their best every day. “It’s life” so why not play two?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

M-STEP (A Teacher's Point of View)

I’m a school teacher in Michigan. We’re about to embark upon the M-STEP, which replaces the MEAP test. The state of Michigan, like most states, has determined what all of our core standards must be, and then in its supposed wisdom, our state ascertained that it could write a test which proves once and for all whether or not our students, teachers, and schools are succeeding. I won’t go into any of the year-long mysteries about this assessment or technological issues involved in the taking of this tool. I won’t even go into the scheduling issues or stress factors or the fact that students are being exposed to the test for the first time and teachers only recently finding out what “might” be on it and what it’ll look like. It’s all for the good of education according to the legislators. School districts, teachers, and students will be judged by it. Students will learn if they’re proficient or not in a set of core standards that legislators decided would be best. But that is not what I’m writing about, lest you think I’m being negative. I’m writing about those students in my classroom who don’t care about the thing—and how much it bothers me.

Believe me, I hear the complaints and concerns of students, parents, and teachers alike, but my response is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a test. It’s required. It’s what we’re told to do, so we should do it. Maybe it’s fair and maybe it’s not, but why does that matter? Maybe it’s a bad test and maybe it’s not, but how should that affect people’s attitudes? One of my favorite quotes is “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” There’s no way to prove that quote to be true, but what it’s saying is…improve your attitude and do what you have to do. Make the most of life’s circumstances. Stop whining, complaining, moaning, and groaning. Do your best with what life gives you. And what the public schools happen to be giving us right now are core standards and standardized tests. So we need to do them.

I have a lot of pet peeves in this world. Most have to do with grammar. Some have to do with people with bad attitudes. If the government told 16-year-olds that they had to log 200 hours of drive time before they could get their licenses, they’d all drive 200 hours because it’s important to them. If in order to go to the prom, they had to wear a tie or a dress, they’d wear a tie or a dress. If the sports coach said that everyone had to wear warm-up jerseys for pre-game warm-ups, they’d all wear the jerseys whether they wanted to or not. If a parent said to a child, “You can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables,” the child would eat his vegetables. If a publisher said, “I’ll only publish this book if you cut 30,000 words from it,” the writer would swallow his or her pride and find 30,000 superfluous words to cut. If the county sent a letter requiring a citizen to show up for jury duty, the person would make arrangements to be there.

I could think of 100,000 examples of how life is. Do what your boss says. Play by the rules. Obey your parents. Abide by the country’s laws. We are always being told what to do. You know, I hate paying my property taxes, but I kind of like my house and where I live, so I pay them. I don’t like getting penalized when I make late loan payments, so I make them before someone else’s arbitrary cut-off date. I don’t like that I can’t drive 80 plus on the expressway. It would save time to drive over 80, wouldn’t it? I wish I didn’t have to be a certain age to get a full retirement or draw social security. I don’t like it when my exit is closed and I have to make a detour. I truly wish my grass didn’t grow continuously so I have to keep cutting it. But life is what it is, so I do life. It doesn’t matter if I like it, if it’s fair, or if it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a waste of time, if I think the person who told me to do it is an idiot, or if it’s not what I want to do. My life is filled with me being expected to do things I don’t like or want to do.

There are some rewarding things about my job and some things that are a pain in my behind, but it’s my job to do them all. And students…it’s your job to take the standardized test whether you like it or not. Which leads me to the real reason I’m ranting. I’ve established life is packed full of inconveniences and things we don’t like or don’t want to do. I’ve established that those things don’t matter too awfully much. We just do them. And I’ve established that our attitudes need to be better. So here I am with this incredibly profound statement. Since you have to take the test, you should do your best! We’re taking time in our classrooms to give the kids a little insight into what to expect from this brand new M-STEP test, so shouldn’t they be listening? Shouldn’t they be practicing? Shouldn’t they be planning on doing A, B, and C so they do their very best? Here’s the big question. Shouldn’t they care? If my coach told me I had one minute to make as many layups as I could, I’d try to make them all. If I knew I was playing a solo at a recital, I’d practice. And while I was playing, I’d try not to make a mistake. If I had a part in a play, I’d learn my lines so I could be proud of my performance. If I was white-water rafting and heading to a class five rapid and my guide told me to paddle as hard as I could or I might die, I’d paddle exactly like I didn’t want to die. If I had a special date, I’d plan and prepare so I’d make a good impression. If I was taking an on-line IQ test, I’d darn well try to get every single one right because I want to know how smart I am. You see, I’d do my best. I’d pay attention to M-STEP hints. I’d do the practices. I’d go to bed early and eat breakfast and bring a bottle of water on test day. I’d read the wordy directions. If it said to write and give evidence, I’d give three or four pieces instead of one or two. If my teacher showed me what the directions are going to be like or introduced me to the on-line tools, I’d pay attention and practice them with the class.

And when the test day came, I’d try to get them all right. All of them. Every one of them. I’d care. It wouldn’t matter how I felt about the thing. It’s the test. It’s how the state of Michigan says I’m going to be evaluated. It’s how my teachers are being evaluated. It’s how my school district is being evaluated. It doesn’t matter if I like it, agree with it, want to do it, or think it’s fair. It’s the evaluation I’ve been told to take, so I’ll take it, and I’ll do my best. I’m so sick of the whining and complaints. I’m tired of the apathy and laziness. I’m exhausted trying to help so many students who don’t care. People need to care. People need to do their best. People need to conform to the test like they conform to nearly everything else in their lives and suck it up and do the best they can. I don’t like being told what to do any more than the next person, and I have opinions just like the next guy. But I have a philosophy that says when I’m put to the test, I try to do my very best.

All students need to care. The test is coming whether they like it or not. It evaluates them. They shouldn’t want to find out they’re not proficient. They shouldn’t want a bad score in their student file if they do poorly. They shouldn’t want to let their parents—or themselves—down. We all know there are flaws in the system. There will almost certainly be flaws in this new test. Philosophically, and in any and every other way, you may hate standardized testing and M-STEP. But so what? Care anyway about how you do. Do your best anyway. Prepare…take it seriously…listen…practice…follow the directions. Go above and beyond. Do the best you can because this is exactly how life is. We do what we’re told sometimes even when we don’t like it or when we think it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter when it comes to this test. We do what we have to because that is exactly how life always is.